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  • Housing Center was first local bank with Mexican-American ownership

    The Way We Were logo
    By Tom Prezelski

    On the north side of the 800 block of West Congress Street stands an elegant but humble white office building known as “El Banco.” Since 2011, the building has served as the headquarters for the Pima County Housing Center, but it has a much longer history and remains a monument to a noble but short-lived experiment.

    In the early 1970s, the aftermath of the civil rights movement brought much-needed attention to a number of issues faced by minority communities, including the lack of access to capital to buy homes or finance businesses. Locally, newspaper editorials and public forums addressed issues like “redlining,” namely, the practice of some banks to summarily deny loans to minority customers, while Democratic Pima County Supervisor Ron Asta decried “economic discrimination” against people in the largely Mexican-American south and west sides of Tucson. 

    Nationally, these problems became a focus even for the Nixon administration, whose Advisory Council on Minority Business Enterprises recommended policies that encouraged the formation of banks in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Morris Herring, a member of the council and vice president of the Great Western Bank, took up the challenge. Herring, a Texan of German and Mexican descent, had briefly worked as a bullfighter before entering the banking industry. An active Republican, he had served a term as Arizona State Treasurer and ran for Congress against Mo Udall in 1970.

    With an informal mission statement of “trying to buy bootstraps for as many minority members as we can so they can earn more and live better,” Herring organized the new Banco de las Americas in September 1971. His new board consisted largely of leaders in the Mexican-American community, including football star turned insurance salesman Joe “Jackrabbit” Hernandez, bandleader and County roads employee William “Willie” Lem, County employee Ray Saunders, County roads foreman Frank S. Romero, businessman and former legislator Emilio Carrillo, Sheriff’s deputy Mike Valenzuela, former El Casino Ballroom owner Alfred Lostaunau, and businessmen Ramón Ahumada, Alfred Gastelum, and William Molina.
    El Banco incorporators
    Though there were a few big money investors, board members largely sold shares door-to-door for $20.40 a piece on the south and west sides and were soon able to start in August 1972 with $800,000 in working capital. Initially, the bank was headquartered in a trailer on the south side of the 700 block of West Congress Street, a location which was regarded as the heart of Tucson’s Mexican-American community. They soon moved into more permanent quarters across the street, a $400,000 building designed by local architect Fernando Palafox. Design elements were intended to evoke an Aztec temple, a motif also reflected in the bank’s advertising materials. The new building was dedicated on May 4, 1974, with a ceremony featuring United States Treasurer and Arizona native Romana Acosta Bañuelos and a performance by Mariachi Cobre.

    However, there were already signs of trouble. Early on, the board was beset with internal conflict, personality clashes, and disgruntled shareholders, prompting lawsuits and parliamentary power plays. On top of it all was a lawsuit by Bank of America over El Banco’s name. In March 1974, an out-of-court settlement led to a name change to Banco Internacional de Arizona.

    Herring and his allies on the board remained positive, even as El Banco struggled, talking openly about plans to expand into Nogales, but this was not to be. In 1977, an aggressive group of investors led by a Canadian briefly took control of El Banco, announcing their intention to change its name and its mission. Herring and the remaining group from the old board were briefly able to take control once again, and the back and forth continued for years. Meanwhile, the bank found itself under scrutiny from state and federal officials, accused of making insider loans and other “unsound practices.” In 1978, new leadership changed its name to Southwestern Bank, but the trouble continued. Finally, on Sept. 25, 1981, the bank was closed by state regulators.

    Despite the constant litigation and fact that it never turned a profit, El Banco remains an important milestone. El Banco was the first local bank with Mexican-American ownership and during its heyday was the only bank in Tucson with bilingual staff. Moreover, El Banco remains a reminder of a community’s efforts to take charge of its own economic destiny.

    The building had a number of tenants over the years, including a behavioral health agency and a radio repair shop for the Sheriff’s department. In 2011, the County Housing Center moved into the space, meaning that El Banco’s original mission of promoting homeownership and economic self-sufficiency for the people of Pima County would continue one way or another.

    Photo: Seated, L-R: William Lem, Joe Hernandez, Ramon L. Ahumada, Alfred Gastelum, Emilio Carrillo.
    Standing, L-R: Ray Sanders, Frank S. Romero, Morris Herring, William Lewis

    The writer wishes to thank Former Pima County Housing Program Manager Betty Villegas for her insights into the history of the building and Victoria Lem for setting up an interview with The Hon. Morris Herring and her father, William Lem, as well as for providing me with scans from Mr. Lem’s scrapbook.

    Pima County FYI is featuring a monthly column on some of the history behind the people and places of Pima County, written by Tom Prezelski. Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards.

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